In a year during which families and colleagues have been prised apart and forced inward, we can truly say that #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek has taken on new importance. But even without the trials of this fraught period, there has been a mental health epidemic brewing in the world of work for years – so much so that employee “burnout” has recently been recognised by the WHO as an occupational hazard. There are elements of corporate culture that have arguably exacerbated this problem; so it follows that there are ways that leaders can offer solutions.
Managing wellbeing in the remote working shift
Some would have assumed that with new freedoms it offers, remote working could reduce stress, but for many the opposite has been the case. The loss of separation between work and home life, the lack of human contact, and the new pressures of telecommunication have all taken their toll on the collective psyche.
- Working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak means the average Brit is putting in an extra 28 hours of overtime a month, according to a survey of 2,000 people by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation.
- More than half of those surveyed (56%) said that they felt “more anxious and stressed” about work than they did before the pandemic.
How can we reduce stress in the remote working transition? One key area to focus on first: streamlining communication. The average office worker is said to receive 121 emails every day – with each extraneous message chipping away at the psyche. Of those surveyed by LinkedIn, a quarter said they felt under pressure to respond to requests more quickly than normal – and “stay online” and contactable beyond the end of the working day. How much could be stripped away without losing efficiency? Communication overload can be avoided by setting precedents for what does and doesn’t constitute valuable and responsible interaction.
- An online free-for-all can lead to digital and exhaustion and the constant pressure to immediately reply. Whether it’s ‘No Meeting Tuesdays’ or no emails on the weekend, set hard boundaries for communication to show that you are conscious of the problem.
- I was recently struck by the honesty of this email signature used by one of my contacts:
*MY WORKING HOURS MAY NOT BE YOUR WORKING HOURS. PLEASE DO NOT FEEL OBLIGATED TO REPLY OUTSIDE OF YOUR NORMAL WORK SCHEDULE.*If leaders had this in their emails, it would speak volumes about their understanding of the ‘always-on’ challenges associated with remote working.
- Prioritise video calls, which are a much better vehicle for establishing rapport creating empathy, and reducing the emotional and mental ‘affinity distance’ between team members.
Technology should reduce, not introduce, stress
Research suggests that the anxiety epidemic has been aided and abetted by the increased digitalisation and surveillance of modern workplaces. In a 2019 survey of 2000 professionals, over three quarters said stress at work has had a negative impact on their personal relationships, and 66% were losing sleep due to work stress. Among the leading causes were the threat posed by new technologies and the pressure to learn new skills. Consider the term ‘technostress’, which describes negative symptoms directly related to the use and adoption of new technologies.
In an increasingly techno-centric marketplace, it’s easy to forget that a new tool isn’t always the answer. That new calendar app, communication channel, or project management software might be causing more harm than good. The most important step is allocating enough resources to adequately train staff on new technology. This can stem the spread of uncertainty, frustration and insecurity before they have a chance to lead to technostress. If people can understand and become adept at using new technology, they are far more likely to embrace its benefits and harness it to fulfil their own potential.
Lead with empathy
Empathy is the soft skill that is fast becoming as tangible as any other business leadership asset. Building trust, collaborating with colleagues, keeping employees engaged – these are company-defining and priceless merits that can only come from a deep human understanding, and can work wonders for mental wellbeing.
Showing faith in employees is paramount, particularly when so many have complained of an increased culture of surveillance. Remote working is encouraging a culture of so-called e-presenteeism, where workers feel they should be available 24/7 – even when they are unwell. According to the LinkedIn research, almost half of those surveyed (47%) admitted to pretending to be busy while working from home, over fears they could lose their job if not. Sometimes, as a leader, it’s the non-quantifiable measures that can go the furthest in assuaging these anxieties.
- Stay clued in with the most up-to-date wellness resources available to you and your workers, and remind people of these resources regularly.
- Reinforce to your employees that you are maintaining an open-door policy – virtually – for them to talk through their issues.
- Recognise the individual contexts of those you’re working with. For those without others in the house during social distancing, offer more frequent check-ins.
- Show appreciation! Whether it’s a corporate gamification system, some extra time off, or some social media love, show your employees that you have faith in what they do.
Work-related burnout is a risk for all of us, but if leaders can set a tone of positivity, honesty and empathy across their organisation, then the building blocks are in place for a less troubled and ultimately more productive working environment.